I spent years trying to teach myself the basics of electronics. I had a few basic electronics courses in engineering school, but they were high-end theory, and only years later did I find it unusual that there was never one instance of putting a soldering iron in any student’s hand. I always equated assembling your own circuits to be something extremely complex (and it can be, of course) and something that I would likely never be able to grasp and implement as a hobby. Electronics wasn’t my main area of study, but I recognized that a better understanding of it would likely have led my career in a different direction.
After college and a few years of working, I once again found myself wanting to create some things that would involve a better understanding of electronics than I possessed. So I went on the hunt for some books… found a few… and was sorely disappointed. Either the books were too simplistic with zero hands-on or they jumped to quickly into complex equations that I knew were overkill for the kinds of circuits I wanted to build. I discovered Make magazine back in 2005 and was immediately taken with many projects that looked possible with just a little bit of experience with a soldering iron (I had that!) and a better understanding of wiring up a schematic using a breadboard (I lacked that). But a new career started up in 2006, my first child arrived in 2007, and the next thing I knew… teaching myself electronics took a backseat. For a bit.
In late 2009, I picked up a copy of Make: Electronics by Charles Platt. A quick flip through the book told me that this was the one. I chose to document my experience as I worked through the book on a blog, including photos, videos, and commentary on each of the 36 projects. It was one of the most enjoyable self-training experiences of my life, and the bump in my understanding of electronics, reading schematics, breadboarding, soldering, and a slew of other skills increased immediately. (As a matter of fact, I still read through the book and my blog notes each year, just to keep it firm in my mind.)
And now it’s 2013. I’ve had a lot of fun over the last three years — I’ve built a number of little gizmos from schematics I’ve found on the Internet or in the pages of many magazines. I’ve even designed a few of my own simple circuits (and burned out a few before discovering my errors) and integrated them into little devices I’ve given to my sons. What’s funny to me is that some of these circuits are extremely complex, but I’m able to build them simply because I finally learned how to use a breadboard properly! But now I’ve got that bug again… and it means taking my understanding of electronics a bit deeper. But there isn’t a Make: Electronics II to purchase! This means another book search…
Thankfully, Charles Platt referenced a certain book in Make: Electronics that I managed to hunt down a few years back. It mostly sat on my bookshelf, but every few projects I’d find myself reaching for it and digging in to understand a particular component or concept a little better. If there is a successor to Make: Electronics, then I believe it would have to be Practical Electronics for Inventors. And here’s the best part — the Third Edition has just arrived in bookstores with some big updates from the Second Edition that includes substantial coverage of sensors, microcontrollers (including Arduino and BASIC stamp), and a very interesting chapter (16) on modular electronics that is all the rage these days with companies offering up plug-n-play circuit boards for all sorts of functionality.
Practical Electronics for Inventors is written by Paul Scherz and Simon Monk, and its sixteen chapters and three appendices will take up almost 1,000 pages of your valuable shelf space. And you’ll be glad you found the space for it, trust me. Yes, it’s got theory. Yuck. I’m a big avoider of equations and charts, but I have to admit that I’ve actually read through some of the math and found myself nodding… not from a complete understanding, but more of an Okay, so there is a method to the madness that is capacitor storage.
The theory, thankfully, is scattered throughout the book, so you’re not likely to find your head hitting the table as your Delta waves kick in. A little theory goes a long way with me, and I want the hard details, not the math. As with the Second Edition, I’ve found that the Third Edition works best for me as simply a resource. I don’t ever see myself reading through this monster over a couple of weekends. Instead, I’m letting my own curiosity and the details of my current projects direct me to the proper pages. For example, right now I’m using some basic switching transistors in a little gizmo I’m trying to create, so I’m all about Chapter 4 — Semiconductors. As a matter of fact, I just lied a moment ago — I actually did read all 93 pages of Chapter 4. Once I got started and realized I was about 40 pages in, I just made my mind up I might as well finish it and see what else I discover. I’m glad I did! Because otherwise I would never have known about Surgectors, PolySwitches, and Avalanche Diodes. I may never actually have need for them, but I definitely have a 20-30% understanding of what they are for and how they might — MIGHT — help me one day… especially the avalanche diode should I ever find myself working with voltages in the thousands. It could happen!
One of the other topics that I’m just now spending some more time in learning is the proper usage of the oscilloscope. Yes, I know that using one can be invaluable. And, yes, I understand the troubleshooting benefits the device offers. But so far, I’ve managed to avoid using one because it just always overwhelmed me when I tried to learn a little bit. But no more… now I’m currently reading Chapter 7: Hands-On Electronics (nice title!) and, for the first time ever, I’m actually UNDERSTANDING this device. Sort of. But it’s making sense, and it never would have if my electronics knowledge did not continue to increase. What I’m finding is that as I learn more about electronics, I’m able to learn more about electronics… does that make sense? Take Chapter 8, for example, that covers operational amplifiers. I’ve built a few myself in the last couple years, and I understand both the theory (I think) and the application. And now I’m finding all those crazy schematics in Chapter 8 are actually beckoning me to read and learn more. What is this Inverting Comparator with Hysteresis? I have no idea, but reading through it actually helped cement the concept of a pull-up resistor just a bit more. I’ve experienced the jittery nature of an amplifier, and with hysteresis defined I now see and understand the schematic (and the matching graph)!
While Make: Electronics is certainly suitable for a younger audience (maybe 9 and up?), Practical Electronics for Inventors is a bit more advanced — there’s actual Calculus equations found here and there. This is not a book that you’ll sit down and read like a novel… although I’m sure there are some folks who can read it like that and probably will. I can easily see the content of this book being perfect for an electrical engineering student or maybe a high school student with a strong aptitude for electronics. For us home hobbyists, it’s a book that is there to fill in the blanks, maybe provide an alternative circuit, and ultimately, without insult, show us exactly how much we do not know and what we can look forward to as we continue our self-education. (And with a 45-page Index, your next electronics question probably has an answer that can be found easily.)
Note: I’d like to thank Bettina for providing a review copy — I’ve been anxiously awaiting this update, and it was well worth the wait.